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Mindfulness programs are catching on in Cincinnati schools

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Posted at 12:00 PM, Oct 02, 2016
and last updated 2016-10-02 12:00:17-04

CINCINNATI -- Hearing about the practice of mindfulness may conjure up images of tricky yoga poses or hours of deep meditation, but mindfulness is just the act of taking time to be in the present moment.

The concept sounds simple. However, with ever-increasing distractions and demands on our lives, focusing on the here and now takes effort. While anyone of any age can learn mindfulness, local teachers are taking it upon themselves to show their students how to be in the moment.

“I tell the kids it’s paying attention on purpose and being in the present moment,” said Jean Bode, a school counselor at Wilson Elementary in the Forest Hills School District. “Make sure there’s nothing in your hands, nothing distracting you, and pay attention to whomever is speaking.”

Bode said her school started participating in mindful music moments this year, when a selection of classical music is played over the intercom system for a few minutes after morning announcements.

Students at Wilson Elementary in Cincinnati participate in a mindful music moment. Photo provided by Wilson Elementary School

“We ask them to close their eyes, find their breath and perhaps listen to the flute -- 'what does it make you feel?'” Bode said. “The kids are participating and they love it. You see them being calm. I was worried about our older kids thinking this was awkward or not cool, but they were right into it.”

While mindfulness has roots in Buddhism, Dr. Jon Kabat-Zinn developed the modern practice in the U.S. in the 1970s, defining it as “an awareness that arises through paying attention, on purpose, in the present moment, nonjudgmentally.” Some benefits of mindfulness include stress relief, lower blood pressure and improved sleep. It can also be an important tool in the treatment of depression, anxiety disorders, substance abuse and eating disorders.

In July, the University of Cincinnati Foundation concluded a six-month review of existing mindfulness programs in schools locally, nationally and internationally. Dr. Sian Cotton, director of UC’s Center for Integrative Health and Wellness, assisted with the project and said this was the first time researchers analyzed the various mindfulness programs and their outcomes as a cohesive group.

“In Cincinnati we have little pockets of things going on, but there are more national and international studies and successes,” she said. “When schools implement these programs, there’s less stress among the students.”

The research results indicated schools that have mindfulness programs saw an 83 percent increase in school performance. Mental health improved 77 percent.

“The stress rates in our country are going up, and to teach kids active methods to manage that stress is a good thing,” Cotton said. “The earlier we can teach them, the better. These are very teachable skills. We’re giving them the tools to put in their toolbox as the world comes at them faster and faster. We have to give them stress reduction tools.”

Jessica Laudeman, a school counselor at Sycamore Junior High School, said they tried an eight-week pilot program on mindfulness last year and are looking for ways to incorporate the practice more in classrooms.

“I think many students at this age are very open to practicing mindfulness,” Laudeman said. “One of the biggest concerns that I see for our young people today is their stress levels and management. When I began teaching mindfulness and asked the students if they would be willing to try a technique that would help them learn how to manage their stress more effectively, almost every student was eager to participate and many vocalized that stress is a big issue for them at this age.”

More than 170 educators from local schools attended a recent workshop to learn how to incorporate mindfulness programming within their schools. The workshop was hosted by Interact for Health, an independent foundation dedicated to promoting health through education, research and engagement.

“The interest is amazing,” said Meriden Peters, program officer for Interact for Health. “Teachers and principals are coming to us and they’re stressed out, they’re burned out and they’re looking for some help.”

Shelley Dean, a language arts teacher at Indian Hill Middle School, said they also started a mindful music moment program and she hopes to start teaching simple mindfulness techniques to colleagues throughout the year.

“I hope to see a reduction in student anxiety, an increase in positive interactions among students and a happier, more productive classroom overall,” Dean said.